HeARTworks wonders among Jackson’s homeless


By Melia Dicker
Jackson Free Press

Michael Lewis stands in front of a table covered with a sheet of canvas, which he has splattered with colorful acrylic paints in the style of Jackson Pollock. He surveys his work in silence, straightens the canvas so it lies flat and picks up a small bottle of orange paint.,

"I'm just gon' add a little," he says. He squeezes paint directly from the bottle and adds three large spirals along the bottom of the canvas and a few squiggly lines along the edges. His thick dreadlocks fall in his eyes, and he brushes them aside with his thin fingers.

"That's it," he says, bringing the bottle down on the table with an air of finality.

Lewis is a 52-year-old homeless man and a client of Stewpot Community Services a non-profit organization that meets basic human needs like food, clothing and shelter. Lewis is also an artist, and he has found his niche in the HeARTworks program, which provides weekly art sessions for Stewpot clients. The program is independent of Stewpot but has ongoing permission to use its cafeteria space.

Through hour-long art sessions every Tuesday morning, Lewis has created a series of paintings that was on sale at HeARTworks' first art show Sept. 10, at Fischer Galleries in the Fondren are of Jackson. Artists received 80 percent of the proceeds from their pieces, and Stewpot received 20 percent.

Founded a year ago by Stacy Underwood, and run through a partnership with her friend Jamie Randle, HeARTworks has created a way for Stewpot clients to find a voice through their art, share their talents and earn money from doing so. Volunteers have found themselves transformed by working with those less fortunate.

Art: The Great Equalizer
It is a Tuesday at 10 a.m., and about 20 people, mostly middle-aged and older, are seated at round tables in Stewpot's cafeteria, absorbed in creating art. A man with a short Afro and beard is painting an ocean scene, carefully dotting green paint onto jagged brown cliffs with a small brush. At the next table, a couple of older women are gluing fabric squares to strips of white cardboard and adding touches of paint, while Stewpot staff and volunteers walk around the cafeteria setting up for the daily noon-time lunch.

Underwood and Randle had arrived at 8:45 a.m. as usual to transform the cafeteria into an art space for an hour. They have covered the cafeteria tables with white butcher paper and distributed various art supplies according to the projects their students are working on.

Each week, they carry client art projects and big boxes of supplies — oil pastels, clay, watercolors — up and down two flights of wooden stairs, from their cars and back.

The two women, along with potter and volunteer Warren Wells, circulate around the room and greet their clients with enthusiasm. They distribute snacks and give gentle pointers if the clients want them. "Add a bit of yellow here," the women suggest, "and maybe some polka dots?"

Underwood and Randle don't see themselves as teachers, but rather providers of a welcoming creative space. Though they might give artistic advice to clients, or present their work in an appealing way, they never alter the work itself. Over time, they've gotten to know their clients' preferences and regularly introduce them to new materials and project ideas. The most important thing, they believe, is that the clients enjoy themselves.

"You got the nose on that rabbit just right!" Underwood says, looking down at the drawing of a client named Mary Ann Young. "That angle is hard to do!"

Young, an older woman who always sits alone at a table by the window, continues looking off into the distance and doesn't reply.

Underwood raises her volume a notch. "Do you want to work on it a bit more?" she asks. Young doesn't react. Underwood nods and adds the painting to the small stack of artwork in her hand.

Randle leans over to Underwood, saying softly, "I asked Mary Ann if she wanted to work on it more, and she said, 'NO!'" She barks out the word gruffly and laughs. It's clear that Randle is fond of Young and is tickled by her personality.

"She's had enough for today, and that's OK," Underwood says, laughing, too.

Darryl Washington, 41, created an art table for the gallery show. He painted a small wooden table silver and created a cityscape under its glass top out of a computer motherboard, a fan blade and other recycled odds and ends.

Washington has titled this piece "City on the Sea." He points out an oil rig drifting on the water, and a helicopter hovering over the table, attached by a wire. Though it is difficult to understand Washington as he drawls and softly mumbles his words, he clearly demonstrates pride in his work.

A Tutwiler native, Washington left school in 11th grade to begin working as a residential painter, and then as a brick mason.

Upon arriving in Jackson, Washington helped paint two murals on Stewpot's Opportunity Center. Soon afterward, he discovered the HeARTworks program and began coming on Tuesday mornings.

One day, Underwood brought some tin-can tops and scrap wood to HeARTworks, and Washington decided to glue the pieces together to form a robot. He painted his sculpture, attached wires for hair and entitled it "Man on a Mission." This first foray into 3-D art eventually led him to design the art table.

Currently, Washington works as a landscaper a couple of days per week and hopes that his painting and 3-D art becomes successful enough for him to do it full time.

"There's no one that I love more than the other," he says. "If it's anything dealing with my hands, especially something like art, I just love it."

As one walks around the room, the power of art becomes clear: It has the power to equalize. At HeARTworks, everyone — no matter what his or her circumstances — is an artist above all else.

'Mollison was Jesus to me'
The half-hour devotional service happens every day at 11:30 a.m., but today's service is special. It's a memorial for Mollison Holmes, one of Stewpot's longtime clients who died unexpectedly the previous weekend from a heart attack. The chapel is packed in a small room adjacent to the cafeteria, with standing room only.

Against a backdrop of muffled voices outside the door and the clamor of the lunch setup, the service opens with a prayer. The audience joins in to pay tribute to Holmes, a middle-aged man who was both deaf and mute. Several stand up and share stories about the ways Holmes expressed himself: through his warm smile, and through the paintings that were a source of confidence.

Underwood and Randle walk to the front of the room. They are both in tears. So is Greer, Underwood's 9-year-old daughter, who has come to HeARTworks today with her 7-year-old brother, Jimmy. Four-year-old Ian is home with a sitter.

"I loved him so much," says Underwood about Holmes, sniffling and wiping her eyes. "He was my first friend here at Stewpot."

She points to a framed picture on the wall, of a dark-skinned Jesus kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane.
"The very first day I was in here, he did this, and it just took my breath away," Underwood says. "That was Jesus to Mollison, and Mollison was Jesus to me."

After Randle and several other folks share their memories of Holmes, the crowd sings a few rousing gospel songs, clapping and swaying. They give a proper send-off to a man who might not otherwise have had a memorial service at all — if not for the collaboration of Stewpot and HeARTworks.

Through the program, Holmes was able to leave the legacy of his paintings. Some will hang at Stewpot and the Billy Brumfield house, the Stewpot temporary shelter where Holmes slept. A few pieces will go to his mother, and several of his best were available for sale at the Fischer show. Underwood and Randle intentionally priced them higher than the rest, to share proceeds three ways: among Holmes' mother, Stewpot and a fund started in Holmes' honor, called the HeARTworks Memorial Fund. The fund will launch a small library of art books, which Mollison loved, for anyone to use for inspiration.

"We feel that he would have wanted that," Underwood says.

'Same Kind of Different As Me'
After the service, Randle joins Underwood at her house in Belhaven. The women's eyes are still red from crying, but they exchange stories and laughs about the morning's art session.

Underwood and Randle don't tend to ask about their clients' lives, because they want to build trust by not prying. Over time, they have learned bits of information about their clients, but they rarely have a complete picture of anyone. Despite the gaps in their knowledge, they have become close with the folks they've seen week after week over the course of the last year.

Last summer, Underwood got the idea to start HeARTworks after reading the book Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. It tells the true story of a multi-millionaire and a homeless man finding common ground and lifelong friendship despite their different lots in life.

"(The book) puts an absolute new face on homelessness," Underwood says. "Everybody needs to read it."

The book so inspired Underwood that she decided that she wanted to volunteer with the homeless and needy at Stewpot. She began brainstorming ways to best use her talents.

For some time, Underwood had been searching for satisfying ways to make use of her art studies from the University of Mississippi. She had never felt called to run an art gallery or be a full-time artist herself. In fact, when she tried to paint on her own, she'd find herself staring at a blank canvas, frustrated by artist's block.

"Two weeks after I read (Same Kind of Different As Me,), it was like a cartoon lightning bolt," Underwood says with a laugh. "Art for the homeless. I just knew it. I feel like out of nowhere, God laid that upon my heart."

Rather than focus on children or women, she wanted to reach the "older, middle-aged, distraught community" who are often forgotten.

Nearly right away, the program began falling into place. Underwood e-mailed a similar art program for the homeless in Austin, Texas, for advice and received not only a gracious reply, but also an entire plan for program success. Within just a few weeks, she arranged to meet with Stewpot staff members Don London and Tara Lindsey and got permission to start HeARTworks sessions in the cafeteria the following Tuesday.

 She was just so excited and overjoyed," says Lindsey, who says that she found Underwood's enthusiasm contagious.

As a petite, privileged white woman walking into Stewpot to offer her first art session to a group of clients who were poor and mostly black, Underwood felt nervous. However, meeting the kind and hard-working people like Mollison Holmes convinced her that her idea might not be so crazy after all.

After the first session, Underwood knew that she needed help with the program. She asked a long-running women's Bible study group if anyone could volunteer on a regular basis.

Out of 20 or so women, Randle was the only one who raised her hand.

Randle, who lives with her husband and children in Madison, was a graphic designer turned professional photographer who had felt the need for inspiration in her work. HeARTworks was exactly the kind of opportunity she had sought.

Underwood and Randle began working as a team, providing art sessions for Stewpot clients every Tuesday.

 Stewpot's clients took a while to adjust to the new activity. At first, they complained about their usual Bingo time being moved to accommodate the art. Some would ask for money every week, which frustrated Underwood at first. She turned to her faith for guidance.

"God just said, 'What do you expect?'" Underwood says. "'This is the most needy part of your entire city. You drive up with your highlights and your gold hoops, and you don't think you're going to be asked for a couple of dollars? Get used to it!'"

Once the women kept coming back to Stewpot week after week, Underwood and Randle say, the clients began trusting them as friends. They don't ask the women for money anymore. "I think they would feel guilty doing that," Randle says.

When clients do make requests, they are for small necessities. B.C., a man who always sits with his friend James and sips a cup of steaming coffee, asked Underwood for a pair of gloves and a hat last spring. This summer, he asked for a pair of sunglasses. Underwood is happy to oblige, because "so little means so much."

Everyone Is changed
HeARTworks' Sept. 10 show at Fischer Galleries fell on the week of the program's first anniversary. Underwood says that it was difficult for her to ask others for help with the event. She thought that local businesses in particular are bombarded for donations all the time and felt nervous about being turned down.

Nevertheless, she mustered up the courage to e-mail out a few requests and was stunned by the outpouring of generosity.

Chris Newcomb, CEO of Newk's Express Cafe, said by e-mail, "Anything you need, gratis to you."

Tasho Katsaboulas, the owner of Kats Wine Cellar, said that he was thrilled to give back to a population that often passes through his property every day. He volunteered to donate to the event every year.

"Everyone who gets involved is changed," Underwood says. "It's not that people don't want to help. They just don't know how."

Fischer Galleries owner Marcy Nessel was enthusiastic, too, when Underwood approached her about hosting the HeARTworks show. Nessel had volunteered with Stewpot during the early 1990s, providing peanut butter sandwiches and fresh fruit to children at the after-school program. She told Underwood that she would happily host the show free of charge. In fact, she said, "Thank you for letting me do this," and offered to have them back every year.

Nessel helped Underwood and Randle price and display the art in the gallery. Prices generally ranged from $20 to $225.

To prepare for the event, Underwood and Randle took over Underwood's attic. The women covered a pool table and the floor with stacks of paintings, wooden frames and boxes of supplies. Together, the women chose the best pieces from each client, making sure to select work from all of the 30-or-so people who have participated during the year. With the help of their friends from Bible study, Underwood and Randle framed around 100 works and attached silver spoons to the lower part of the frames.

Most of the spoons are tarnished antiques, reminders of the beauty inherent in everyone, including those who weren't born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths.

Next to each piece of artwork hung a card featuring the artist's picture and a few details about him or her, so buyers can feel a personal connection with those they've supported.

"The message a person sends when they put (HeARTworks art) on their wall is, 'I'm serving the community this way,'" Underwood says.

While Underwood and Randle invited the artists from HeARTworks to attend the show, they thought that the artists would feel more comfortable having a private reception at Stewpot. The women hosted a celebratory brunch on the program's actual anniversary, Sept. 8. They filled the cafeteria with the clients' framed artwork before taking it to Fischer. Bellwether Church, a United Methodist congregation, catered a hearty meal for clients, complete with table linens, to congratulate them on their work.

Until now, Underwood and Randle have bought most of the supplies for HeARTworks out of pocket. They hope that as the program grows, members of the community will also be inspired to give.

For starters, they hope the successful turnout at the Fischer Galleries show highlights the best aspects of Jackson's impoverished population and provides a way for them to earn money.

Change your own life
Over the year, Underwood and Randle have seen positive changes in their clients. Margaret Lear has improved immensely in her art skills, for example. Other clients, like Mollison Holmes, learned to express through art what they can't articulate. The women have seen clients build confidence in themselves and trust in other people. Even when the HeARTworks participants are homeless, they have something to look forward to each week: the enjoyment of creating art in a safe space.

Underwood and Randle have seen not only changes in their clients, but changes in themselves. Underwood says that she now understands the peace that can come with living simply. She's also learned what it means to look someone in the eye and really see that person, no matter who they are.

"Now I'll be driving down the road and see someone who looks like they've been walking a really long time … and I'm wondering: 'Oh, do I know them? Is that Michael? Is that James? Does he need a ride?" Underwood says, laughing as she mimes craning her neck out of a car window.

"I want to pull over and get 'em," Randle says, "Which I would never have thought of before doing this program. I would have been scared to death. There used to be a fear around homeless people, and I don't have that anymore."

Both women say that they've realized how much of a difference just one person can make in a community, and how much a volunteer benefits from service.

"The life you change is your own," Underwood says. "Serving and giving, you're really doing that for yourself."

While Underwood is content with helping even one disenfranchised person express himself through art, she is eager to expand the program. One significant development is that Frank Spencer, the CEO of Stewpot and a lawyer, is helping incorporate HeARTworks as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Eventually, contingent on sufficient funding, Underwood would love to start an urban art center with a storefront to sell clients' art.
It all started with a stroke of inspiration, and one year later HeARTworks has brought together Jackson area residents from all walks of life: volunteers, the homeless and needy, nonprofit staff, small business owners and potential art buyers..

To donate or volunteer, contact Underwood at stacyu@comcast.net.

This article is adapted from a story that appeared in the Sept. 10 issue of the “Jackson Free Press” and is used with permission.